Why study mayors?

As a student of Canadian politics, I was taught that Canada is a constitutional monarchy. We have three levels of government. Our leaders are called Prime Ministers, Premiers and Mayors. We use a Westminster-style parliamentary system. And so on and so forth.

What I wasn’t taught is that one of these levels of government is not like the others. In fact, one of them – local government – is a different system of government, with a distinct history and source of power, and it works in a rather different way.

And, I wasn’t taught that that there was anything particularly unique about local leaders, like mayors.

I believe this is a serious and increasingly unforgivable oversight in how we teach young Canadians about their governments. For too long, local government has been the forgotten sibling in Canadian politics, overshadowed by the study of federal and provincial governments. The traditional view of local government has been as a ‘creature of the province’ responsible for administering basic services without any notable role in the democratic life of Canadians. Even today, look at most political science departments at Canadian universities and count the number of scholars focused on international, federal or provincial politics compared to those focused on urban politics or local government. I rest my case.

The fact of the matter is that local government is not just a smaller-scale version of what we have at the federal and provincial level. It’s a different animal. In most cases, there are no political parties at the local level (and even where there are, they are dissimilar from federal and provincial parties in several important respects). There is usually no ‘government’ and ‘official opposition’, so decision-making occurs through a rather different process. Importantly, there is no presence of the Crown at the local level (I’ll save the longer version of this one for my dissertation, but it’s a fundamental distinction with practical implications). Municipalities are not considered Westminster systems. There is no concept of ‘ministerial responsibility’ at the local level and interactions between politicians and the bureaucracy tends to be much more informal. The requirements for openness and transparency are considerably higher for local governments. It’s older, with the earliest municipality in Canada dating back to at least 1647 (more than 200 years before Canada became a country!) and modeled more closely after a corporation than a government. I could go on.

The point is that local government is a unique level of government in Canada.  And, it’s unique in how people interact with it. It’s often said that local government is ‘closer to the people’, and there are many arguments to be made for how this is true. The types of services provided by local governments have (arguably) a greater impact on the day to day lives of Canadians. Access to participation and decision-making tends to be greater at the local level. And, surveys show that Canadians tend to trust local government the most, and find it to be the level of government that is most responsive to their needs (as an example, check out this 2014 survey by the Environics Institute).

It’s hard to think of an issue that is not, in one way or another, a local issue. Local governments today deal with an increasingly complex suite of policies and services that impact the quality of life of all Canadians. Local governments are responsible for the success of our communities, which in turn determines the success of our nation. To overlook the distinctiveness of local government in the teaching and study of Canadian politics is (in my rather biased view!) a most unfortunate omission.

Just as local government is unique, so too are its leaders.

Mayors are unlike any other political leaders in the country. Just consider their path to leadership. To become Prime Minister or a Premier in Canada, one must pass through a series of selection processes including at the riding association level and advancing through the apparatus of a large political party. In most cases, becoming Mayor just involves paying a modest filing fee and running successfully in a general election. These different paths may reward different leadership traits, and perhaps attract different kinds of leaders. Nearly 30 big city mayors in Canada can accurately claim to be directly elected by more Canadians than any other elected official in the country. Once in office, Mayors have different suite of powers with which to govern. In most cases, Mayors have no cabinet, and limited patronage or disciplinary tools to use to advance their agenda. They lead through other forms of power and influence.

To date, there has not been a comprehensive study of mayors in Canada. While the activities of Mayors are chronicled on a near daily basis through popular media, a review of academic literature finds a much smaller volume of work, contained mainly in textbook chapters, a short list of historical and biographical texts, and a few specifically focused academic studies. What is written about Canadian mayors describes the role as “quite unclear”1 and claims that we have a uniformly ‘weak mayor’ system, a term borrowed from the United States where it refers to a system of government (which isn’t exactly a perfect match in the Canadian context – a topic for another blog!).

In a recent article, political scientist Tom Urbaniak describes the challenges of studying mayoral leadership in Canada, including a need to build a literature “almost literally from scratch”2; the contested core concepts of ‘power’, ‘leadership’, and ‘strong / weak mayor’; the numerous variables to be considered including personality, interests, and institutional features; methodological challenges arising from the sheer number of municipalities and variation among them; and, the different approaches engaged in the study of urban politics. Despite these challenges, Urbaniak points to the importance of this endeavor:

These intellectual dilemmas should not discourage the study of municipal leadership, considering the growing political focus on cities and municipalities, and increasing public concern about urban poverty, infrastructure, air quality, finances, public safety, and the conservation of vibrant communities. Cultivating local political leadership—and the conditions for such leadership to be effective and directed to salient purposes—may indeed be one of the most important social and public-policy objectives of our time.3

I couldn’t agree more. Local government is important and unique, and so are its leaders. They ought to be studied in their own right. We need a Canadian-made way to understand and describe political leadership at the local level in Canada. And while no single study can fully address this deficit, this project aims to take a small step forward.

Please join me. Share your insights. Argue back. Let’s start an overdue dialogue about local political leadership in Canada.

Endnotes

  1. Andrew Sancton, “Mayors as Political Leaders,” in Leaders and Leadership in Canada, eds. Maureen Mancuso, Richard G. Price and Ronald Wagenberg (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1994), 175.
  2. Tom Urbaniak, “Studying Mayoral Leadership in Canada and the United States,” International Journal of Canadian Studies v.49 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 206.
  3. Ibid, 222.